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Civil Disobedience in American and Postal History: Is it Legal and is it Justified?

Updated on August 22, 2013
Were the Berkeley Post Office Occupiers justified by American History?
Were the Berkeley Post Office Occupiers justified by American History? | Source

An American Institution?

One could say that the doctrine of Civil Disobedience was practically invented in America. This might seem peculiar in light of the fact that our own revolution wasn't exactly a peaceful one, but it was actually the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau's essay 'Resistance to Civil Government (Civil Disobedience) that inspired Civil Disobedience movements throughout the world. So although our own bloody revolution and Civil War make Civil Disobedience seem like such an un-American thing, the peaceful doctrine of Civil Disobedience can be said to have been born in the very violent cradle of the United States.

Thoreau's personal theory of Civil Disobedience can be summarized by saying that citizens of a country are not obligated to obey laws that they consider contrary to the mandates of their own conscience. He used this doctrine to justify not paying taxes during the Mexican-American War, which he was morally opposed to. Of course, disobedience to democratically enacted laws goes against the grain for many Americans, whose sense of obedience to the law is deeply ingrained. My late Grandfather once scolded me for driving across the country at 75 miles per hour back when the speed limit was 55. "It's against the law," he told me, and that was the end of the argument. I would like to think that my bad behavior was justified by the doctrine of Civil Disobedience, but I don't think I had heard of it yet. I was probably just an impatient 20 year old with raging hormones.

Is Civil Disobedience always justified? Can I claim it when I disagree with the speed limit, or if I wish to text while driving? Is it just a convenient way to justify anti-social behavior, or are there circumstances in which it is appropriate? I would submit that that there are extreme cases, particularly those in which fundamental human rights are being violated, that merit the use of civil disobedience to get society and government back onto the correct moral and ethical track.

I would also add that Civil Disobedience is probably the most effective way of bringing about social change. Violence rarely works, as witnessed by the ongoing intifadas in Israel and the bloody civil war in Syria, but peaceful Civil Disobedience movements are almost always effective, though they may take time.. The list of success stories is extensive: India shaking off British rule under the leadership of Gandhi, the former Iron Curtain countries ushering out communism, the American Civil Rights movement winning voting rights and tossing off Jim Crow laws, and South Africa's ultimate victory over Apartheid, to name a few. Violent protest results in an angry, entrenched opposition that often has the mandate of the public behind it to quash and suppress what it perceives to be atrocities. Peaceful protests, on the other hand, such as the sit-ins in Selma, Alabama during the sixties, when fire hoses and dogs were turned against peaceful protesters, cause the public to sympathize with the cause of the protesters, after which the outraged public also cries out for change.

The American transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau was a driving force behind the doctrine of Civil Disobedience.
The American transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau was a driving force behind the doctrine of Civil Disobedience. | Source

Why Now?

I am bringing up the case for Civil Disobedience in American and Postal history now because of the ongoing occupation of the Berkeley, California Post Office. At least since the 60s Berkeley has been known as a hotbed of dissent, which some might call 'rabble rousing.' In 1964, members of what was called the Free Speech Movement "occupied" a police car on the University of California Berkeley campus, and then followed up by sitting in at a building at the school, in order to protest on-campus restrictions of their political speech. Although the official "occupy" movement had not begun, the Berkeley activities differed only semantically from the modern phenomenon. Civil disobedience is civil disobedience, no matter what you call it. And like today, the 60s protests were given mixed reviews. Many labeled the protesters as rabble-rousing "hippies," while others sympathized with their cause.

Dissent in Berkeley has once again reared its ugly or beautiful head, depending on your viewpoint, although it seems to have been quietly swept off to the dusty back news bins. Even the Twitter and Facebook accounts of my fellow Letter Carriers are curiously silent about it. This is why I am bringing it up today, to remind people that the movement to save Berkeley Post Office is still going on, and to explore whether movements like this are legitimate in the light of American history.

The occupation of the Berkeley, California Post Office began on the evening of July 26th, exactly one year after the USPS board of Governors announced a decision to sell the post office at Milvia Street and Allston Way. The primary goal of this movement is to stop the privatization of public services, services that are guaranteed by the Constitution. The group also wishes to put a halt to the practice of selling historical buildings, paid for by the public, to private individuals. Do the members of this movement have a legitimate grievance, or are they merely hot-headed, rabble-rousing riff-raff with little better to do than pitch tents on the steps of the post office? Detractors derisively yell out "hippies!" and other unprintable names at them, but let's see how they stand up to the scrutiny of American History.

A tired protester embraces the Mailman's best friend.
A tired protester embraces the Mailman's best friend. | Source

The Sons of Liberty

In 1765 a group of Boston tradesmen and artisans called the 'Loyal Nine' assembled in Boston to form a group known to history as The Sons of Liberty. Their ranks were not filled by the Boston elite, but from among middle class shopkeepers. Their leader was a shoemaker named Ebenezer McIntosh, but more prominent men who wished to keep their names off the roll call were also connected to the organization. The Sons of Liberty were definitely not of the peaceful, Civil Disobedience type, and some of their practices included burning down or ransacking the houses of British tax officials. Although the leaders of the Sons of Liberty were what we would today call "respectable" citizens, they were able to very effectively organize what we would today call the "riff-raff", meaning itinerant or unemployed workers, into mobs that would unleash terror and violence against their opponents. The impromptu mobs sprung up to cause havoc and disorder in all of the American colonies. You may also recall from your American History class that they ransacked ships loaded with tea and dumped the contents of these vessels into Boston Harbor, an event known as The Boston Tea Party. Despite its tendency toward violence the Sons of Liberty are remembered today as great Patriots, even to the point where Samuel Adams, one of their central driving forces, got his face and name on a beer label.

In spite of the atrocities and terror tactics perpetrated by the Sons of Liberty, I have never heard its membership denounced as shiftless riff-raff or even as rabble-rousers. But I think the rank and file of the Sons would look pretty similar to the men and women gathered on the steps of the Berkeley Post Office, minus the colonial style clothing and the stones used to thrown at British officials. In contrast, with the exception of one knife-carrying belligerent who was quickly chased off, the Berkeley Post Office occupiers are a peaceful bunch who take great pains to sweep undesirable elements, such as drug dealers, off of the steps as quickly as possible.

Anybody dare to make a disparaging remark about good old Sam here?
Anybody dare to make a disparaging remark about good old Sam here? | Source

The Civil Rights Movement

The activities of the Sons of Liberty definitely could not be classified beneath the banner of Civil Disobedience, but other notable crusades in American History definitely fall within the purview of the phenomenon. The struggle of African Americans to bring about civil rights, primarily in the South, is a textbook example of what can be gained from the proper application of Civil Disobedience. The leader of the movement, the late Reverend Martin Luther King, had studied the doctrine of 'passive resistance' that was effectively employed by Gandhi in India. The result was a series of bus boycotts, sit-ins, and marches across the south that had the desired effect of guaranteeing voting rights, prohibiting discrimination in housing and public places, and securing other rights for all Americans regardless of race.

But the discriminated groups were not alone in their struggle. Thousands from among that same unruly body of "riff-raff" that was to participate in the Berkeley protests poured across Southern borders to help fight the injustice being perpetrated against African Americans. Certain "respectable" genteel folk in the South did not react well to this invasion. In June, 1964 three of the freedom fighters were murdered in Mississippi. These protesters were certainly martyrs in the Civil Rights cause, and except for maybe out in the muddy, inaccessible reaches of some deep South swamp where banjo picking is the order of the day and teeth are optional, I think it would be difficult to find anyone to contest the notion that the victims of these racially motivated crimes were anything less than American heroes.

James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Henry Schwerner were murdered by Southern Klansmen in 1964 as they peacefully fought for African American voting rights.
James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Henry Schwerner were murdered by Southern Klansmen in 1964 as they peacefully fought for African American voting rights. | Source

Drawing it Together

Where am I going with all of this, you might ask? I certainly am not advocating that the protesters sitting in at the Berkeley Post Office are on the same level as the Mississippi martyrs who made the ultimate sacrifice. A Post Office is not a fundamental human right, after all, but I would argue that the Constitution that established this Post Office is designed to protect fundamental human rights. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the power to "Establish Post Offices and Post Roads." Based on this, I would conclude that Post Office closures are not simple business decisions. Although certain services the Postal Service provides, namely package delivery, must now compete in a competitive marketplace, the Postal Service as a whole is still a public institution that is mandated by Congress to provide basic, essential mail services to all Americans. Regardless of whether any particular post office is profitable, and let's face it how many are is in this day and age, the law of the land dictates that the American public must still be served by this institution.

Therefore, even if your opinion of these folks sitting in at the Berkeley Post Office is that they are shiftless, shaggy, left wing riff-raff, perhaps the passage of time and the test of history will be kinder to them. At one point in our early history the United States was still looked upon as a rogue, pariah nation; embracing dangerous democratic ideals that threatened to topple the crowned heads of Europe. Our earliest heroes were dismissed as dangerous radicals across the water in Europe, just as the later martyrs of the Civil Rights movement were similarly branded here at home. So let's be careful not to denounce the Berkeley Post Office activists, lest we be forced to make the same categorization of American heroes of the past.

Anybody bother to read this thing lately?
Anybody bother to read this thing lately? | Source


The group Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office (, ended its participation in the encampment on the steps of the Berkeley Post Office as of noon on August 18th. This particular group elected to continual the struggle via legal and legislative action, but their withdrawal did not mean an end to the encampment. Despite being issued a no-trespass letter, the occupation by other groups dedicated to the preservation of the Post Office continues as of this writing, August 22nd, 2013. Please keep them in mind.

The defenders of the Berkeley Post Office decry the privatization of Constitutionally-guaranteed public services.
The defenders of the Berkeley Post Office decry the privatization of Constitutionally-guaranteed public services. | Source

Constitutional Protection for Post Offices?

Does the US Constitution protect Post Offices from arbitrary, business related closures?

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Agree or Disagree?

Do you agree with the actions of the Berkeley protesters?

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    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      6 years ago from San Diego California

      That is exactly correct. In fact, for the first 100 years of its history the United States was considered dangerously revolutionary by the crowned heads of Europe. How silly that seems now. Thanks for dropping by!

    • Learn Things Web profile image

      Learn Things Web 

      6 years ago from California

      How people judge a current event and how it's judged by history are two very different things. It's easy to forget that there was opposition to the fight for independence from many people when it was occurring. I read somewhere that about a fifth of colonists preferred to be British subjects and a much larger percentage of people didn't take one side or the other. Those people who wanted order and who supported the status quo are largely forgotten because no one agrees with them anymore. We all enjoy the benefits brought to us by a minority that thought their cause was right and worth fighting for.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      6 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you. I think civil disobedience occurs when the government ceases to be the servant of the people and begins to abuse it's authority. You may be right. Thanks for reading

    • suziecat7 profile image


      6 years ago from Asheville, NC

      I think this country is ripe for civil disobedience again. Excellent Hub.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      6 years ago from San Diego California

      Hippies, hoboes, anarchists, tree-huggers, everybody is welcome to hang out here for a little while. Thanks for dropping by billybuc and keep up with the pork report.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Power to the people, Mel! I'm an old 60's reject, so I perk right up when I see an article about civil disobedience. Then you sweetened the pot with a discussion about Thoreau and I was hooked. Well done!

      I see you mayor finally got roasted....well done San Diego!

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      6 years ago from San Diego California

      My whole point is that it should take more than a mere business decision to close post offices. The Postal Service is constitutionally mandated to provide mail delivery to the public, and if Post Office closures interfere with this mission than they should not be allowed. Last year a post office in Frederick, Maryland was closed during the Christmas peak delivery season, and you can imagine the disastrous results. All over the country there are customer service horror stories as postal facilities are closed. It should not surprise you as an ex postal employee that this organization often implements plans in knee jerk fashion, without really studying the long term effects. Thanks for stopping by and happy birding!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      According to the constitution then, that is a public building, and it should be open, correct?

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      6 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you for some very solid points. Although the postal service is a business, it differs from other businesses in being constitutionally mandated to deliver mail to all Americans. It doesn't seem to be that it can do this by closing a postal facility in a heavily populated part of Berkeley. I'm also pretty sure that the people who live in this neighborhood don't have the political clout to fight back. You never hear about them closing post offices in wealthy neighborhoods. Thanks for dropping in!!

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James MizBejabbers 

      6 years ago from Beautiful South

      So soon we forget, eh? I forgot the origin of that quote, but I think it is appropriate. As a country, we seem to pick and choose what we want to remember of history. I also note that the media has a tendency to rewrite history in its own image.

      You have brought out something that most of us probably had not thought about. The postal service is owned by the citizens of the United States, and do our congressmen have the right to sell it off or to privatize it? I believe they only have the right to do the will of their constituents, not what they want. If we want to keep our postal service, we need to get busy and let our collective will be known. Good luck to the ones trying to save their post office. Voted you up, and I wish they had a button for educational.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      6 years ago from San Diego California

      I always look forward to your visits. The thing that surprises me is that most of the people we think of as heroes used violent methods to bring about change while those who utilized peaceful means are often tagged as the dangerous radicals and wind up assassinated. Thanks for the kind words.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      This is a great hub! Thanks for writing all of the historical aspects of civil disobedience and distinguishing it from the ugliness of some of the other types of protests. I may not always agree with what the protestors are saying or what they're trying to protect or obtain, but I will always support their right to take action unless they resort to violence or in any way violate the rights of the people who disagree with them. As you pointed out, many wonderful changes have occurred throughout history because people utilized civil disobedience to influence the changes.


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